Museum Eye: The Irishman who took a bullet for Bolívar

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2008), Reviews, Volume 16

The Irishman who took a bullet for Bolívar
The uniform of Colonel William Owen Ferguson, 1800–28
Lar Joye of the National Museum of Ireland kicks off a new regular series on historical artefacts and the stories behind them.

The National Museum of Ireland, Decorative Arts and History’s permanent exhibition Soldiers and Chiefs: The Irish at
War at Home and Abroad 1500–2001 boasts the Gran Colombian Army coatee and epaulettes of Colonel William Ferguson, an Irish hero of the South American wars of independence (right). The red coat features gold buttons (below right), embossed with the words ‘Republica de Colombia’, and gold epaulettes. The elaborate epaulettes indicate that Ferguson had reached the rank of colonel by 1828.
Born in County Antrim, William Ferguson describes himself as stubborn and challenging in his formative years. He got into financial difficulties in 1818 and was subsequently sent to South America on a commission in Simón Bolívar’s army. He proved to be a gallant and intelligent officer and quickly gained Bolívar’s trust, rising through the ranks from second lieutenant in 1818 to colonel in under ten years.
The young Ferguson saw numerous battles, including some naval action. He fought for eight months during the siege of Cartagena and conducted several guerrilla campaigns that led to the surrender of Pasto in 1822. It was at the battle of Pasto that Ferguson was promoted for bravery. He was also decorated with the order of Liberators of Venezuela, and with the medals of the Liberators of Quito and Ayacucho.
On Bolívar’s orders, Ferguson carried the Liberator’s constitution to the Republic of Bolivia, riding from Lima across the Andes to Chuquisaca, covering 1,800 miles in nineteen days, with a similar return journey. Ferguson later took command of the vanguard that marched on Venezuela against rebel forces. With only 120 men of the Battalion Paya, Ferguson gained control of the west of Venezuela in only two days against a defence composed of four militia battalions, eight cavalry squadrons and four artillery pieces.
Also on display is one of Col. Ferguson’s diaries, from late 1827 to early 1828, which displays his thoughts and daily activities as part of Bolívar’s army. Travelling through Pasto, he reflected that the town ‘is almost without inhabitants owing to the bloody . . . war which has been carried on, it is calculated that . . . fifty thousand men have lost their lives in this province’. During this period this part of South America was wracked with factional violence, and the diary reflects Bolívar’s attempts to regain control. Ferguson writes of these attempts at persuasion: ‘in John Bull fashion [I] proposed throwing off all allegiance to [General] Paez and proclaiming Bolívar’s government’.
On 28 September 1828, while on duty at Bogotá as Bolívar’s aide-de-camp, Ferguson was mistaken for the general, shot and mortally wounded. The people of Bogotá honoured Ferguson with a public funeral and buried his remains in the cathedral, an unusual honour for a Protestant. They also built a handsome monument bearing an inscription to ‘Colonel Guillermo Fergusson’. The objects were kindly donated to the Museum by Charles Paterson of Western Australia after being contacted by Col. William H. Gibson of the Irish Defence Forces.

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